This is the first in a series on Christian nationalism and the religious groups supporting Donald Trump. You can read the second, more historical piece in the series here, and the third more data-driven piece here.
It was Saturday, but Donald Trump was already at church.
Technically, he was at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., preparing to address the crowd at a “Celebrate Freedom” concert on Independence Day weekend. But the July 1 event, which was designed to honor veterans, accented its patriotism with a distinctly religious flair: it was hosted by megapastor (and vocal Trump devotee) Rev. Robert Jeffress, and shortly before the president took the podium, a Southern Baptist church choir burst into a rendition of “Make America Great Again”—an original composition based on the president’s campaign slogan.
Trump loved it (he tweeted a music video of the song on July 4), and echoed its sentiment a few minutes later by invoking his go-to ideology when speaking to his base: Christian nationalism.
“In America we worship God, not government,” the President of the United States declared, pausing to soak up applause from the heavily evangelical Christian audience. Trump has since transformed the line into his own personal preacher’s refrain, ululating it during speeches and even posting a video to his official Instagram account of himself saying it. He captioned the clip in his signature all-caps style, a 140 character micro-homiletic buttressed by one of his favorite hashtags, “#USA 🇺🇸”. A virtual alleluia chorus of approving responses filled up the comments section below, chanting accolades such as “Amen!!!!” and “🙌” and “Yes🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸🤗🎉😇!! Go Trump!!”
It’s hardly the first time Trump has pushed the boundary between religion and politics. Despite the twice-divorced businessman’s much–discussed missteps with morality and religion, interweaving national identity with religious piety has become a curious constant of his young presidency. He first hinted at it during his inaugural address, proclaiming that America will be protected by God (presumably because he is president). He was more brazen a few weeks later, when he told attendees at the National Prayer Breakfast he would defend American values because “that’s what people want: one beautiful nation under God.” By the time he spoke before a crowd at Liberty University in May, he was describing America as a “nation of true believers” whose origins, he claims, are inherently religious (“When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, they prayed,” he said).
[Trump] captioned the clip in his signature all-caps style, a 140 character micro-homiletic buttressed by one of his favorite hashtags, “#USA 🇺🇸”. A virtual alleluia chorus of approving responses filled up the comments section below, chanting accolades such as “Amen!!!!” and “🙌” and “Yes🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸🤗🎉😇!! Go Trump!!”
When combined with viral images of evangelical pastors praying over him in the Oval Office and stories of cabinet members huddling together for weekly Bible studies, Trump’s administration is laying an ideological foundation that relies on a synthesis of God and country.
But where did this cross-toting, flag-waving, and sometimes confusion-inducing form of Trumpian Christian nationalism come from, and why does it appear to resonate with throngs of Americans? And how in the world did Trump, hardly a paragon of conservative Christian virtue, end up as its champion?
A “dominionist” project decades in the making
American Christian nationalism has many forms and iterations, but it was birthed by the same spark that ignited the American Revolution. Some of the earliest revolutionaries were firebrand poets who imagined America as an all-encompassing theocracy and insisted freedom from the English crown could transform the colonies into a Protestant Holy Land. Their dream ultimately died in the hands more secular-minded men we now call the Founding Fathers, but the broader tradition of faith-infused politics continued to thrive throughout American history. From the ecstatic preachers of the various Great Awakenings to the founding of America-centric faith traditions such as Mormonism (which regards the Constitution as a divinely inspired document), Americans have a rich tradition of blurring God and country.
But as pervasive as these fusions of religion and politics were, the Christian nationalist scaffolding currently propping up Trump is far more specific, and relatively new. It shares many theological ideas with the broader spectrum of evangelicalism, but adds a different brand of intensity and emphasis (especially domestically). Its origins are also more recent, beginning with the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s, when leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Pat Robertson characterized America as a “Christian nation” and urged their supporters to elect conservative Christian leaders who shared their rabid opposition to abortion, LGBTQ equality, and euthanasia, among other things.
You were already seeing under Bush…this systematic creation of an entire alternative reality. That really started on the Christian right, in terms of the creation not just of an alternative science, but the idea that secularism—all of secular knowledge, history, and reality—was just one worldview, and that anything that emerged from secular presuppositions could be ignored.”
Christian nationalism is by no means inherent to evangelicalism—not all Religious Right leaders are Christian nationalists per se, and their culture war battles weren’t all rooted in Christian nationalism. But among their ranks exists a subset that preaches an unusually dogged—and arguably far more subversive—vision of Christian nationalism, beginning in the 1980s. In her 2006 book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, Slate writer and author Michelle Goldberg documented the emergence of a small but influential religious community that gained momentum under the tenure of President George W. Bush. She pointed to a constantly shifting menagerie of conservative Christian pastors, homeschool groups, political action committees, and even judges who made it their mission to “restore” America to something that matched their deeply conservative understanding of Christianity.
Their core project, she argues, was to reject secular society and replace it with one where the Bible—or at least their interpretation of it—was the sole arbiter of truth.
“You were already seeing under Bush…this systematic creation of an entire alternative reality,” Goldberg told ThinkProgress in an interview. “That really started on the Christian right, in terms of the creation not just of an alternative science, but the idea that secularism—all of secular knowledge, history, and reality—was just one worldview, and that anything that emerged from secular presuppositions could be ignored.”
The group, Goldberg explains, was an offshoot of a fringe theology called “Christian Reconstructionism.” Throughout the 20th century, preachers such as Rousas John Rushdoony and Gary North advocated for a complete transformation of American society into a full-on conservative Christian theocracy. Public schools, in their mind, should be closed and replaced with religious institutions, and Rushdoony even suggested implementing the death penalty for LGBTQ people, women who had sex out of wedlock, and others he believed to be sinners.
Christian Reconstructionism was widely criticized within evangelicalism, with some leaders of the Religious Right describing it as “scary.” But it nonetheless inspired a more diluted version known as “dominionism,” which teaches that Christians “have a God-given right to rule,” according to Goldberg. The descriptor is controversial (it is more often used by journalists than scholars of religion), but it refers so-called “Dominion Theology” that harps on a Genesis passage in which Adam and Eve are commanded by God to have “dominion” over the earth. To those who ascribe to this theology—in whole or in part—Christians must take up this charge even in the political realm, meaning that America should be ruled by—or even exclusively made up of—conservative Christians.
“What a secular left critic might describe as some kind of imperialism, a Christian nationalist might describe as God’s will,” Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who spent years covering and publishing books on the Religious Right, told ThinkProgress.
Under Obama, a movement on defense
Throughout the mid-2000s, the campaigns of dominionists—who, again, represented only a portion of evangelicals—came in waves.
When modern science and scholarship challenged Creationist historical narratives, dominionists and their allies published a constellation of alternative history and science textbooks that insisted the earth was only a few thousand years old (these books, Goldberg notes, often cited each other). When the Air Force Academy was beleaguered by accusations that students and professors pushed a Christian nationalist outlook on non-Christians, James Dobson, former Republican congressman from Indiana John Hostettler, and others rushed to recast the evangelicals as the victims. And when Alabama judge Roy Moore was told to remove a plaque of the Ten Commandments from his office, right-wing Christian demonstrators descended on the state capitol to protest (he was ultimately removed from his position in November 2003 by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary for refusing to remove the monument, but subsequently returned to the bench in 2013).
Goldberg describes the resulting movement as a “strange fundamentalist postmodernism, in that there was this denial that there was any such thing as objective reality.” Led by the likes of Pat Robertson and others, dominionists began to enjoy a modicum of influence.
Then came the election of Barack Obama, which spirited away any pull Christian nationalists ever had in the executive branch. In response, several factions appeared to redouble their efforts, working to legitimize their voice in politics and culture—and expand the reach of their ideology, or least aspects of it.
“The kind of undermining of science and material, empirical reality…I think now it’s just taken over everything,” Goldberg.
Slowly but surely, once obscure figures—leaders Sharlet called “B and C-listers”—scrapped their way into corners of the GOP power structure. Roy Moore, for instance, is now running for U.S. senate, and currently enjoys a 9-point lead over his establishment opponent in Alabama’s Republican primary—much to the chagrin of GOP leadership. Moore is campaigning on a platform that opposes divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage—but insists God “sent Donald Trump” to the White House.
Meanwhile, influential activist David Lane—who works to “restore America to her Judeo-Christian heritage” through his group the American Renewal Project—has aided various GOP candidates by hosting prayer rallies and meetings with pastors, endorsed Trump during the campaign, and invited him to his events.
Goldberg said that even the rise of Mike Pence, a politician once described as a “theocrat” and who both Sharlet and Goldberg linked to Christian nationalism, would have shocked her when she published her book roughly a decade ago.
“[Back then], Mike Pence as a Vice President was unimaginable,” she said.
Trump, the ‘Cyrus’ president
Although Trump has spoken about God in the past, he almost certainly isn’t the chief architect of the Christian nationalism he preaches. The sometimes shockingly lewd president is notoriously gauche on matters of faith, occasionally inducing laughter when he attempts to quote scripture or explain even the simplest theological concepts. He is, to the untrained eye, an unlikely prophet, which makes the right-wing Christian embrace of him all the more puzzling to progressives and even some conservatives.
But the strange thing about Christian nationalism, experts say, is that it doesn’t necessitate pure leaders, and Trump gave the “B and C-listers” an opening. Yes, members of the Religious Right often deride Democrats for violating moral norms, and a 2011 PRRI poll found that only 30 percent of white evangelicals believe a leader can commit an “immoral” act and behave ethically in a public role. But when PRRI asked the same question in 2016, white evangelicals reversed course: 72 percent said they were now willing to overlook the moral failings of their leaders.
“The idea of a morally pure leader—which is something that the Christian right sort of embraced for a while—that’s more of an aberration in the history of American evangelicalism than the idea of a sinner who is somehow used by God.”
The shift shouldn’t come as a surprise, Sharlet says.
“That’s what’s interesting about the failure of liberalism to account for the Christian right embrace of Trump,” Sharlet said. “I think evangelicals know Trump’s a sinner—that’s the idea. If anything, the idea of a morally pure leader—which is something that the Christian right sort of embraced for a while—that’s more of an aberration in the history of American evangelicalism than the idea of a sinner who is somehow used by God.”
Throughout his campaign and presidency, right-wing evangelicals offered a number of explanations for Trump’s less-than-Christian attributes. Some, such as Hispanic evangelical leader Tony Suarez, likened him to the biblical Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector hated by the public that Jesus eventually converted (the idea being that Trump, like Zacchaeus, would eventually come around).
Some of Trump’s Christian nationalist devotees, however, argue something else: his disreputable behavior wasn’t explained away, but cited as evidence of God’s favor. According to a Religion News Service report, religious voters who backed “The Donald” would sometimes point to Biblical stories where God elevated unlikely or even sordid individuals to positions of power for divine purpose, such as King David or King Cyrus.
“The proof of his anointing is how little he knows,” Sharlet said.
It’s not uncommon for clergy to laud political leaders; religious groups celebrated President Barack Obama as well. But the tenor of recent days is distinct: evangelical leaders such as Lance Wallnau—an avid devotee of dominionism who participated in Trump’s meetings with pastors during the campaign—wholeheartedly endorsed the Cyrus comparison for Trump. In December 2015, he declared that God had anointed Trump “for the mantle of government in the United States,” adding, “He’s got the Cyrus anointing.” David Barton, head of “biblical values” group Wall Builders, also said in June 2016, “[Trump] may not be our preferred candidate, but that doesn’t mean it may not be God’s candidate to do something that we don’t see.”
Rev. Franklin Graham, son of famous evangelist Billy Graham, echoed the same sentiment in a recent interview with The Atlantic’s Emma Green.
“[Trump] offended everybody! And he became president of the United States. Only God could do that,” Graham said.
Trump’s Christian nationalist syncretism, with himself as high priest
Evangelical-style Christian nationalism clearly impacted Trump’s campaign, although the embrace of the president by the movement’s leaders has more than a little to do with his willingness to promote causes they support. Trump, after all, has pushed for doing away with legal restrictions on politicizing churches, and opposes both abortion and same-sex marriage. For this and other reasons, it should surprise few that Rev. Robert Jeffress was willing to preach a sermon to Trump on Inauguration Day reminding him that God “placed” him in his position.
“He knows in a way that they have been really loyal to him so he’s wiling to prioritize their concerns,” Goldberg said. “I think that where they connect is this sense of resentment over being pushed out of cultural primacy.”
“[Trump is] not making up how steady he has been in his career about invoking religion. If we say it goes no deeper than that, we should be careful not to confuse the power of religious language with depth.”
But the president’s Christian nationalist rhetoric also appears to be interwoven with other similar—but no less powerful—forms of faith-infused patriotism. During his July speech in Warsaw, Poland, for instance, Trump linked the success of “the West” to Judeo-Christian values. The idea—which is broader and more globalist than evangelical Christian nationalism—has long been promoted by “radical traditionalist” Catholics such as Steve Bannon, Trump’s senior advisor.
“[Trump is] not making up how steady he has been in his career about invoking religion,” Sharlet said. “If we say it goes no deeper than that, we should be careful not to confuse the power of religious language with depth.”
Trump may also have taken a cue from Russia, where a version of Christian nationalism is crucial to the relationship between President Vladimir Putin’s government and the Russian Orthodox Church (Orthodox leaders, for their part, have already made inroads with American evangelicals). Add to this the widespread nature of more casual, less explicit Christian nationalism among many conservatives, and it’s easy to see why Trump would make the theological subgenera a staple of his rhetoric, both online and during rallies.
And true to form, Trump’s unique offering to Christian nationalism appears to be, well, deeply Trumpian: insisting the most important figure in the movement is himself. Even as the president has upped his God-talk, he has yet to exhibit pious humility typical of Christian nationalism. Trump continues to insist that “he alone” can help right America’s wrongs, fully embracing his status as one chosen by God to lead the “Christian nation” that is America.
This nuance is sure to irk many right-wing Christians over time, including Christian nationalists. But even if Trump does falter under the weight of this and many other scandals, Sharlet doesn’t see faith leaders doing much soul-searching. Instead, they’ll probably just move on, their pursuit of a “Christian nation” undeterred.
“[If Trump falls from grace] I don’t think it’ll be a crisis of faith for them,” he said. “It’ll be just like, okay, God’s done with that tool.”